When you’re hungry, what do you crave? Comfort food (macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, steak)? Something gourmet (escargot, anyone?)? Nutrition-packed fruits and veggies (mmm, zucchini)? Exotic cuisine (Thai or Japanese)? Or, perhaps “fast-food” (hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza)?
This is the music minister’s dilemma: what to “feed” the congregation. When choosing music for worship services, one must allow for the different tastes and needs in our assembly – and that’s not easy. Our resources offer such great variety that it’s usually difficult to decide. To do our best, the choices must be tasty (meaningful), nutritious (theology-based), enjoyable (accessible), and use quality ingredients.
Let’s start with quality ingredients. For worship music, the words are the first priority. We use the Sunday lectionary, the theme for the day, the worship season, and the liturgy to guide our choice of texts. The next ingredient, the music, needs to have a beautiful and memorable melody line. The music shouldn’t overshadow the words; the words and music should work together to create a meaningful whole.
Tasty dishes appeal to the senses; balance is needed between salty, sweet, acidic, etc. Meaningful music appeals to the emotions. Emotions give the music and words more power: the power to communicate, to convey information, to build memories of the worship experience. Again, balance is needed so that a variety of emotions will be present in the worship service.
In the most basic sense, food that is nutritious gives us the vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc., that help us to grow. If the music has beautiful words, a lovely melody, and inspires us to feel emotions, it can still be full of “empty calories”. Every hymn, song, and anthem must be theologically sound, to give us what we need as Christians, and as Lutherans, to grow in the service of Christ.
When food is enjoyable, we want to experience it again. The same is true of worship music, especially if it allows participation by everyone in our assembly. This is not really a question of music that is “simple” versus “complex”. Some simple pieces are not enjoyable because they are too easy; some complex pieces are worth the time and effort to learn. The music minister may need to “teach” new hymns and liturgical settings over a period of a few weeks. Just think of it as “educating our palates”. Once we understand and can participate, the music is more satisfying.
What about the occasional taste for something different? Psalm 149 says “Sing to the Lord a new song!” We try new foods to build relationships with others, as an exchange of love and trust or culture. Trying music from a different worship style can be a personally mind-opening experience that also builds our Christian community.
Two important notes: first, music ministers need feedback. We don’t know what kind of music the assembly likes (or needs, wants, detests, craves, or fears) unless they tell us. Second, folks may not like everything we choose for the worship service. But we promise, if they’ll try it, they might just like it. (And then they can have dessert!)